Morell, who was a deputy director of the CIA under President Barack Obama and twice served as the agency’s acting director, is a contender to be nominated for the full-time role under Biden, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations, who note that others remain in the mix for the job.
But the prospect of Morell leading the CIA has prompted harsh criticism from members of Biden’s own party — namely Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the Intelligence Committee who will ultimately vote on whether any nominee for the job is confirmed.
“No torture apologist can be confirmed as CIA director. It’s a nonstarter,” Wyden told CNN, referring to Morell’s previous suggestions that the agency’s so-called “enhanced interrogation” of terrorists was both effective and moral — claims that go further than those made by other officials who have faced scrutiny over the the agency’s handling of detainees at black sites, including former Director John Brennan and current Director Gina Haspel.
Wyden’s opposition to Biden nominating Morell could jeopardize his chances of being tapped for the job despite the fact that his name has long been floated as a contender. Multiple sources familiar with the internal transition discussions told CNN that the decision remains up in the air and there is no clear front-runner for the role.
As such, Biden notably did not announce a nominee for CIA director Tuesday despite formally unveiling his picks for several other key national security positions, including his choice for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, who has faced criticism from progressives who accused her of complicity in the CIA’s use of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11.
Morell’s name has repeatedly surfaced in recent weeks as a possible choice for CIA director given his leadership experience at the agency. But while he has long been considered the likely choice by some Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden made clear that he would vote against Morell’s confirmation due to his public remarks on the issue of torture and resistance to congressional oversight.
A congressional aide said Morell’s previous comments on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and his previous resistance to congressional oversight are a problem.
A 2015 report produced by the staff of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who was investigating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, slammed Morell for repeatedly contradicting internal agency cables related to those efforts to extract information from suspected al Qaeda operatives and his references to studies that misconstrued findings about the effectiveness of measures like waterboarding.
Nick Shapiro, a former CIA deputy chief of staff who currently serves as a spokesperson for Morell, pushed back on Wyden’s assertion, telling CNN, “Michael Morell is one of the smartest, most dedicated and hardest-working intelligence officers we have. He has served both Democrats and Republicans for decades. He was by President Bush’s side on 9/11 and with President Obama when we removed Osama bin Laden.
“Morell was not in any way involved with the creation of the EIT program and he did not even learn about it until 2006, four years after it started. He publicly stated in a 2013 ’60 (Minutes)’ interview and wrote in his 2015 book that he believed waterboarding is indeed torture.”
“Morell believes there were many mistakes with the EIT program and has written extensively on them,” Shapiro said.
Still, involvement and public support for the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program remains an issue for Morell and other individuals who have already been nominated to top intelligence posts by Biden.
Some progressives have questioned Haines’ record on sensitive issues and accused her of complicity in the CIA torture program.
While serving as deputy CIA director from 2013 to 2014, Haines decided not to punish agency personnel who were accused of improperly accessing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers during their investigation into the CIA’s use of the enhanced interrogation techniques — a dispute that prompted criticism from Democrats on the panel.
She also voiced support for Haspel when she was nominated for the job in 2018 and faced criticism for her involvement in the execution of the George W. Bush-era CIA interrogation programs, including those carried out at the “black site” prison she reportedly ran.
At the time, Haines’ support for Haspel put her at odds with many Democrats on the panel, and it remains a sticking point for some within the party.
“Haines has an unfortunate record of repeatedly covering up for torture and torturers. Her push for maximalist redactions of the torture report, her refusal to discipline the CIA personnel who hacked the Senate and her vociferous support for Gina Haspel — which was even touted by the Trump White House as Democrats stood in nearly unanimous opposition to the then-nominee to lead the CIA — should be interrogated during the confirmation process,” David Segal, co-founder and executive director of the group Demand Progress, told CNN.
But Morell’s comments portraying “torture” as a useful tool may be considered as more severe for some Democrats if he is nominated as CIA director, raising more questions about who Biden will choose to lead the agency in coming days.